Pandas: Let ’em die?

A Reuters article yesterday proclaimed that BBC television naturalist and conservationist Chris Packham thinks that scientists are wasting their time on the conservation efforts devoted to giant pandas. Pandas have reached “an evolutionary cul-de-sac,” he says, and they’re destined to die out because of their own habits.

It’s true that pandas have a highly specialized lifestyle: they need to eat about 25 pounds per day of just one plant, bamboo, to survive, and their size and morphological adaptations make them restricted to their high-mountain habitats in China. Add that the fact that they are difficult to breed in captivity and you have a conservation nightmare.

Packham’s claim is one that has been bandied about by everyone from evolutionary biologists to bleeding-heart animal lovers. Has the panda, through unhappy chance, come to a stopping point in its success as a species? Unable to shift their diet or move to a new geographic area, are they destined to peter out of their own accord like so many other ancient mammals before them?

While scientists agree that fate has not been particularly kind to the pandas, molecular studies also show a tight correlation between the advent of human civilization and the beginning of panda decline. What’s more, pandas used to occupy lowland areas, but have been driven out by human activities. Even the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which destroyed nearly a quarter of panda habitat, was so devastating to pandas because of its interaction with developed areas.  Even if history has been unkind to pandas, humans have been at least as unkind.

I welcome your thoughts.  Is it our fault that pandas are a dying species? And whether or not we’re to blame, should we continue pouring money into their rescue?

Author: Christine Buckley

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  1. I think you did not get the point of the discussion. The problem is that we don´t have enough money to preserve all species. We need ASAP to apply the “triage” practice in conservation. Money must be used wisely, based on scientific points. Ecological value, extinction risk, probability of species recovery, among others…

  2. David Quammen wrote about a similar question but in reference to island species, and raised some very nice points which apply here. Are pandas destined for extinction? Yes. Is there anything we can do to save them (in the wild)? Probably not in the long run? Should we try? Hell yes, we should try. Pandas have become a big, furry, charismatic symbol of the conservation movement (WWF, anyone). While Luiz raises a crucial point that resources are limited and we need to take a triage approach, we should remember that saving habitat in the name of giant pandas will be beneficial to the myriad other organisms in and around that habitat. Plus, if the sight of a baby panda motivates someone to give to the WWF or another such organization, the heightened awareness is a victory in and of itself.

  3. Nice article and one that is more and more pertinent. I don’t begin to have an answer, but it does raise some interesting questions regarding how we perceive individuals and whole populations. Some more musings on this idea at

  4. I think we shouldn’t shirk our responsibility in conserving pandas, even if there’s going to be a massive price tag. If you want to go the cost-profit analysis way, there’s no doubt pandas are money spinners. Liked it how this video sums it pretty much it all: Plus it’s got great videos of pandas fooling around.

  5. Pandas are cute. Elephant seals are not cute, no one wants to save an animal who looks it has a large welt on its nose. Thus Pandas make a good spokesman for endangered creatures everywhere, sorry star-nosed moles and spiny anteaters…


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